Kullervo (gold, dear one) In the Finnish epic poem The Kalevala (runes 31–36), a tragic hero who unknowingly raped his sister, then in remorse committed suicide.

Kullervo was the son of Kalervo, who had been slain by his brother Untamo. Only one pregnant woman of the Kalervo clan survived, bearing Kullervo at Untamola (Untamo’s farm). While he was still in the cradle, Kullervo planned vengeance on his uncle for the slaughter of his father and family. Kullervo grew up strong but stupid. His uncle sent the youth to the smith Ilmarinen, whose wife, the Maiden of Pohjola, immediately took a dislike to him. She gave Kullervo a loaf of bread with a stone in it. In revenge he had her killed by wild beasts.

Escaping from Ilmarinen’s farm, Kullervo wandered through the forest, where he met the Old Woman of the Forest, who informed him that his father, mother, brothers and sisters were still living. Following her directions, he found them on the border of Lapland. His mother told him that she had long supposed him dead and that his sister, her eldest daughter, had been lost while gathering berries. The lad then attempted to do different kinds of work for his mother but succeeded only in spoiling everything he touched, so he was sent to pay the land dues. On his way home Kullervo met his sister (he did not, however, know it was she). He dragged her into his sledge and raped her. Afterward, when his sister learned who he was, she threw herself into a torrent.

Kullervo rushed home to tell his mother of the tragedy. She dissuaded him from suicide, telling him to retire to a retreat where he could recover from his remorse. But Kullervo resolved to avenge himself on Untamo, who had murdered his father, and prepared for war. He left home to joyous farewells, for no one but his mother was sorry that he was going to his death. He came to Untamola and laid waste the whole district, burning the homestead. On returning home he found his house deserted and no living thing about the place but an old black dog, which accompanied him into the forest where he went to shoot game for food. While traversing the forest, he arrived at the place where he had raped his sister. The memory of his deed came back to him, and he then killed himself.

The tragic legend of Kullervo inspired one of Sibelius’s greatest symphonic works, the Kullervo Symphony, written when the composer was 27 years old. Scored for soprano, baritone, male chorus, and orchestra, it consists of five movements: (1) an orchestral introduction; (2) “Kullervo’s Youth”; (3) “Kullervo and His Sister,” for chorus, soprano, and baritone, portraying the seduction and rape; (4) “Kullervo Goes to Battle,” another orchestral section; and (5) “Kullervo’s Death,” for chorus.

The symphony uses the text of The Kalevala. It was Sibelius’s wish that after 1893 his Kullervo Symphony should not be performed. It was not played again until 1958, after Sibelius’s death in 1957, and was first recorded in 1971, taking its place among the most creative and imaginative late Romantic symphonic works.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante

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